Getting into another person’s mind

Several years ago I attended a concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center in downtown Dallas. About 80 audience members stood in a circle around the musicians. A baritone soloist and six disparate instruments performed Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. Completed in 1969 it is one of the most distinctive and disturbing musical compositions of the twentieth century. The eight songs document the imagined events from King George III’s famous and well-documented descent into insanity.  

It’s a disconcerting 30-minute composition. Hard to listen to. The vocal soloist sings, shrieks, yells, and gesticulates. The instruments play chaotically. There are few melodic figures and no formal structure. 

After the concert, the audience was invited to a reception. I struck up a conversation with a fellow audience member. Midway through the conversation she asked me, “What did you think of the Davies’ composition?” My response: “I didn’t like it at all. It was too esoteric; it was hard to listen to; musically it made no sense.” She calmly and gently responded: “Don’t you realize, the music was portraying the mind of an insane person. It represented how a mad person thinks.”

I’ll never forget her gentle rebuke; it was both instructive and challenging. I think of it often. 

One of the hardest things to do in life is to “get into another person’s mind” and think and feel as he or she does. We live in our own minds 24/7 so it’s hard to imagine how other people experience the world. 

  • When I board a plane my mind is peaceful. What is it like to be afraid of flying?
  • What goes on in the mind of someone who suffers from bipolar disorder?
  • How does a special needs person view the world?
  • Being Stoic by nature and choice, I find it hard to imagine how an emotionally robust person interacts with the world.

Let’s experiment with this concept. Think of someone you know well and try to mentally enter into his world; try to think and feel as he might. Consider their fears, insecurities, blind spots, emotional imbalances, hurts, personal history, family of origin issues, hopes, and dreams. What does he think and feel when he enters a new social environment?

While it’s hard for us to imagine what life is like experienced through another person’s mind, we should try. Otherwise, we’ll not truly understand other people and our empathy will be misinformed or lacking. 

Here’s a video of a performance of Davies’ work. I’ll give a wooden nickel to anyone who can watch the entire video.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Allow yourself some “Popeye moments”

Plus - this article on a nuclear attack on U.S. soil will keep you awake at night

That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more. —Popeye

Do you remember the cartoon character, Popeye the Sailor Man? He was long-suffering and took a lot of abuse from bullies. But there would come a time when he had endured all he could. His patience exhausted, he would say, “That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.” Then he’d crack open a can of spinach, consume it in one gulp, his muscles would grow, and then he’d beat up the bad guys.

Sometimes, we need to have a “Popeye moment.”

Here are some areas to think about.

Distance yourself from unhealthy relationships.

Karl Albrecht suggests, “You can ‘fire’ anyone from your life whom you find toxic and disaffirming to your personhood.” Granted, some relationships are easier to jettison than others (it’s easier to disengage from a colleague at work than from a family member), but to one degree or another, you can and should distance yourself from injurious relationships. You may need to “fire” a customer or a friend or a neighbor. Offer “pink slips” to people who don’t belong in your life.

If you’re overcommitted, cut back.

The Plimsoll line is a reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. If you put more cargo on the ship than recommended, bad things can happen.

In like manner, every human has a “personal Plimsoll line” that indicates how much “cargo” he or she can negotiate. We all have different capacities so you need to determine what your limit is and stay under it.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed you’re probably overcommitted. Analyze all your commitments by asking this question. “If I wasn’t currently doing this, would I start doing it now?” If the answer is no, perhaps you should hit the delete button.

Position yourself so that when you need to, you can push back on unacceptable situations.

You may want to flee an uncomfortable situation but you can’t because there are no good alternatives. You’ve painted yourself into a corner and have no options. It may take time to reposition, but ultimately you need to build in some margin and options so you can aggressively respond to distasteful situations. A friend advised me to always have six months of “go-to-hell money” in my savings account. “That way, if your job becomes unbearable,” he said, “you can tell your boss what you think and then walk away.”

Often, we slowly drift into intolerable situations, which makes them harder to see.

The “boiling frog anecdote” describes a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will slowly be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to respond to threats that develop gradually. These situations are usually the hardest to recognize. The slow slip into jeopardy is so subtle that we are unaware of the descent.

Let me give a prosaic example of a slow drift into an intolerable situation. Over the course of about nine months I slowly developed a serious sinus infection. If I had been stricken by the flu I would have recognized it; if I had had a heart attack it would have been obvious. But the gradual descent into nasal catastrophe was so subtle that I didn’t respond aggressively; I just developed increasing tolerance for the yucky symptoms. I finally had a Popeye Moment, made an appointment with an ENT physician, and the problem was solved.

Audit your life and determine if you’re tolerating an uncomfortable or compromising situation. If you are, allow yourself a Popeye Moment—“That’s all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more”— then follow through and change the situation.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

This article – from New York magazine, June 11-24, 2018 – will keep you awake at night.

Organized abandonment

According to American business historian Robert Sobel, the British government created a civil-service job in 1803 which called for a man to stand on the white cliffs of Dover with a spyglass and to ring a bell if he saw Napoleon coming. Napoleon died in 1821; the job continued until 1945.

Insanity surrounds us:

  • Arizona – It is illegal for donkeys to sleep in bathtubs.
  • Florida – If an elephant is left tied to a parking meter, the parking fee has to be paid just as it would for a vehicle.
  • Kentucky – One may not dye a duckling blue and offer it for sale unless more than six are for sale at once.

Peter Drucker coined the phrase “organized abandonment” to describe the process whereby we can free up resources that are committed to maintaining things that no longer contribute to performance and no longer produce results.

According to Drucker, the change-leader puts every product, every service, every process, every customer, and every end use on trial for its life. The question to ask is, “If we did not do this already, would we, knowing what we now know, go into it?” If the answer is no, abandon it. The change-leader must also ask, “If we were to go into this now, knowing what we now know, would we go into it in the same way we are doing it now?’” [Drucker, Management Challenges for the 21st Century, pg.74]

The term organized means doing this regularly and on a systematic basis.

Over time, organizations and individuals become burdened by unproductive and unnecessary actions. On a regular basis we must ruthlessly evaluate all functions and jettison those that no longer contribute.

In your personal life, organized abandonment might probe these areas:

  • Do I still benefit from reading a physical daily newspaper or should I get my news digitally?
  • Is there a healthier alternative to my typical breakfast?
  • If I was not currently living in my neighborhood, would I choose to move here?
  • Have some of my relationships grown stale; would I benefit from new, more invigorating relationships?

In your organization, probe these areas:

  • As I consider every position in my organization, is each one still needed?
  • Do I have the right people in key positions?
  • If I had the opportunity to fill a position, would I hire the same person who is presently working in that position?
  • As I analyze every line item of the budget, are all expenditures still justified?
  • Are our products still viable?
  • Are there any customers we should “fire”?

Another approach to this topic is to regularly adjust your life using the Keep—Stop—Start formula:

I want to keep doing, or do more of _______.
I want to stop doing, or do less of _______.
I want to start doing _______.

“We’ve always done it that way” is a feeble justification for any activity.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Big lessons can be learned in small settings

In the epic biblical story of David and Goliath, David was confident that he could kill the giant because, “Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them” (1 Samuel 17:36).

Young David was prepared for a large task because he had been successful in smaller ones (though one might argue that slaying a lion and a bear are not small tasks).

Often in life, we can learn important skills in small settings and then transfer them to larger ones. Learning is maximized when we realize that the small setting can be a training exercise. 

I once read that a well-known management consultant (I can’t remember the name) advised recent MBA graduates to work for one year at a big-box store (Home Depot, Staples) because they would be exposed to every aspect of a business (income, expenses, personnel, inventory, ordering and receiving products, marketing, customer relations, etc.). It would be a fast track to learn how to lead a large organization.  

Leaders, if you learn how to properly manage a small team of people—perhaps four or five—you can use the same skills to supervise a large group. If you learn how to cast vision in a small organization, you can use the same principles in a large one. If you train yourself to be emotionally intelligent at home, the same skills will work in the marketplace. Learn leadership lessons in a small setting because they will transfer into a larger one, and the inevitable failures that occur while learning will be less consequential in a small setting.  

Most skills, traits, and concepts are transferable; once you master them in a small environment they will scale up. But if you don’t know how to utilize them in a small setting, you won’t use them in a large one.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Multitasking is a myth

Only two slots left for the October trip to Europe - see details below

What information consumes is attention. A wealth of information means a poverty of attention. Herbert A. Simon, cognitive scientist

We are inundated with bits of information—emails, text messages, phone calls, snippets of news—and they all distract us from focused thought and work. We pride ourselves on being able to negotiate multiple, disparate tasks simultaneously. Multitasking has become a badge of honor in a chaotic world.

But multitasking is a myth. Physiologically, it’s not possible.  

In their must-read-book Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson write:

“Many denizens of the digital world pride themselves on being able to multitask, carrying on their essential work even as they graze among all the other incoming bits of information. But compelling research from Stanford University has shown that this very idea is a myth—the brain does not ‘multitask’ but rather switches rapidly from one task to others.

“Attention tasks don’t really go on in parallel; instead they demand rapid switching from one thing to the other. And following every such switch, when our attention returns to the original task, its strength has been appreciably diminished. It can take several minutes to ramp up once again to full concentration. 

“The harm spills over into the rest of life. For one, the inability to filter out the noise (all those distractions) from the signal (what you want to focus on) creates a confusion about what’s important, and so a drop in our ability to retain what matters. Heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted in general. And when multitaskers do try to focus on that one thing they have to get done, their brains activate many more areas than just those relevant to the task at hand” [Altered Traits, Goleman and Davidson, page 137].

Here’s a simple application of this insight: People cannot read and listen at the same time.

In the past, while teaching a seminar, I would distribute a handout to the students and then begin to talk while they read the handout. I realize now that they weren’t listening to me because no one can read and listen at the same time. 

Here’s a simple way to develop extended focus. 

Most smartphones have a timer. Set it for a certain amount of time and focus exclusively on one thing, ignoring all distractions. Also use the timer to measure spans of time during which you allow your mind to respond to “distractions”—disparate things that need to be addressed.

Proponents of meditation value the trait of mindfulness because it strengthens the brain’s ability to focus on one thing and ignore distractions [see Altered Traits, page 131]. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

In October 2018 I’m hosting a trip to the three great cities of the western world: London, Paris, Rome. (We’ll also visit Lisbon, Barcelona, and Florence.) The trip is limited to 40 guests. Only two slots remain. Click here for more information.

Leaders: use the power of appreciation

Give me enough ribbons to place on the tunics of all my soldiers and I can conquer the world. Napoleon 

As a leader, through the years I have been unaware of the power and importance of expressing sincere and well-deserved appreciation to team members and individuals. I vow to correct this neglect and make “placing ribbons on the tunics of my team members” a high priority.

Consider this:

“Carolyn Wiley of Roosevelt University reviewed four similar studies of employee motivation conducted in 1946, 1980, 1986, and 1992. In each of the studies, employees were asked to rate the factors that motivated them. Popular answers included ‘interesting work,’ ‘job security,’ ‘good wages,’ and ‘feeling of being in on things.’ Across the studies, which spanned 46 years, only one factor was cited every time as among the top two motivators: ‘full appreciation of work done.’ 

“The importance of recognition to employees is inarguable. But here’s the problem: While recognition is a universal expectation, it’s not a universal practice. 

“Wiley sums up the research: ‘More than 80 percent of supervisors claim they frequently express appreciation to their subordinates, while less than 20 percent of the employees report that their supervisors express appreciation more than occasionally.’ Call it the recognition gap.” [From The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath, page 145]

Expressing appreciation can be simple and quick, and it costs nothing. In your staff meeting, brag on a team member. Write a personal note of appreciation. Give a team member an afternoon off as a reward for good work. Public praise is more powerful than affirming someone privately, though both are beneficial.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

The difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion

There are many opinions on what these three terms mean and how they relate to each other. Here are my thoughts. 

All three terms describe a process whereby a person can relate to the emotional state of another person. In this order—sympathy, empathy, compassion—they describe an ever-deepening level of concern and involvement.

Sympathy

Sympathy is a mental understanding of the plight of another person. I sympathize with the plight of starving children in Africa and with the person who has a flat tire alongside the road. I understand that it is a plight. I can sympathize without getting emotionally engaged or taking any action. I’m simply embracing facts. 

Empathy

Empathy takes me deeper. Not only do I understand another person’s pain, I also feel what she is feeling. My emotions are stirred, not by what is happening in my life, but by what is happening in someone else’s life. I feel what a person is feeling.

I remember the first time I deeply empathized with someone. One day, when I was a young pastor, I visited a woman who had recently attempted suicide. As she described the painful circumstances of her life and the despair she was feeling, she began to weep. Suddenly, I began to weep. I asked myself, “Why am I weeping? My life is going quite well.” I then realized that I was weeping because I was feeling someone else’s pain, not my own.  

Compassion

Compassion takes me deeper still. Building on sympathy and empathy, it compels me to become physically involved in relieving another person’s pain; it calls me to action. 

The story of the Good Samaritan illustrates the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37, ESV).

The priest and Levite noticed the distressed man and may have even empathized with him, but they did nothing to relieve his distress. The Samaritan had compassion on the man and it moved him to act.

In reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I imagine that the first question the priest and Levite asked was: ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But by the very nature of his concern, the good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

I’m not suggesting that empathy and sympathy are unimportant or lacking; they are thoughtful and kind impressions. Nor am I suggesting that we must always demonstrate compassion; logistically it’s impossible to respond to every need.  

The great value of these three functions is that they divert our focus from ourselves to others. Instead of being ego-centric we focus on others and become altruistic and magnanimous. And that’s a good thing.

Sympathy says “I’m sorry your hurting.” Empathy says “I hurt with you.” Compassion says “I’ll stick around until the hurt is gone.”

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Three things every person needs: identity, community, and purpose

I recently listened to a podcast in which Sam Harris interviewed Christian Picciolini who, at age 14, became a member of a neo-Nazi white supremacy movement. After only one chance meeting with a recruiter he went from the childhood pastime of trading baseball cards to shaving his head and tattooing swastikas on his body. For the next eight years he sank deep into a culture of hate and criminal behavior.

Picciolini, now 44 years old, has dedicated his life to helping brainwashed skinheads escape from that nefarious movement. 

Based on personal experience and having worked with hundreds of troubled persons, Picciolini suggests that there are three things every human desperately needs: a wholesome sense of identity, a caring community, and purpose. Without these three assets, life is unfulfilling and we become vulnerable to unhealthy influences. 

From birth, we are on a search for three things:

A wholesome sense of identity

Picciolini says, “I never met a white supremacist who didn’t hate himself; none had a positive self-image.” Every person needs to understand who they are—a combination of nature, and nurture, and environmental influences. We need to know and accept ourselves and sense that others accept us for who we are. We need a healthy and balanced sense of self, avoiding the extremes of self-loathing and self-adulation.   

A community

Picciolini was not drawn to the neo-Nazi movement because of their ideology; in fact, he didn’t even know what they believed. He joined because “it was a group of people to hang out with.” We humans are a social species; we long to belong to a group of people. The urge is so strong that we will even tolerate an abusive community. Ideally, we will become part of a caring and healthy group.

Purpose

We need a sense of purpose in life, a reason to get up every morning. We need to be engaged in meaningful activity and to sense that our days, months, and years are making a difference in the world; we’re not aimlessly drifting through life. Our purpose need not be unique or extravagant—we can’t all be a U.S. senator, astronaut, or some other exotic calling—just something simple and noble will suffice. A friend of mine is a waitress at a local restaurant. She has worked the same, simple job for ten years and she maintains a cheerful demeanor and finds satisfaction in her work.   

Picciolini also talks about the “potholes” in life that we inevitably encounter: extended unemployment, physical illness, trauma, mental illness, abuse. When we don’t have a solid sense of identity, community, and purpose, we can easily fall into a pothole and may never get out.  

Here are three applications of these thoughts: 

Individually—How would you rate yourself in these three areas? What can you do to improve or fortify these areas?

Care for others—We can be champions of these three values in the lives of others. Do you proactively help others develop these traits? 

Our children—A parent’s main responsibility is to help each child establish and solidify these areas. 

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.